Mercury Rising: Tracing Quicksilver and (Its) Toxic Assets in a Rapidly Heating Plant

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March 3, 2019

Critical Commentary

I am an anthropologist examining issues of planetary health, focusing on connections of human and environmental wellness. My fleet-footed toxic figure is mercury in its multivalent forms, carrying a “charge” of environmental racism and "slow violence." Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining (ASGM) have become the top sources for anthropogenic mercury contamination, beating out fossil fuels. The 2013 Minamata Treaty recommends eradicating ASGM, which pits brown bodies laboring in the mines against white collar corporations that offer “clean(er)” mining strategies. Mercury’s ability to move through the body, pass the blood-brain barrier, swim through amniotic fluid, and change the body chemistry of all living organisms does not immediately register as a threat for gold miners. The toxic effects take time to become visible. As such, I would like to collaborate and envision with fellow activist-artist-scholars to consider different ways to bring heightened visibility – as well as tactility – to mercury as a toxic figure in the context of both environmental degradation and economic assets that promote the sale of “natural capital” – such as precious metals – for poor countries to pay off IMF-World Bank debt.  As mercury rises on the global barometer, I will trace quicksilver’s toxic circulation through an interactive global map: with images of cinnabar, of liquid mercury, of artisanal mining's amalgams of heavy-and-precious metals, of mad hatters, of the people laboring in the mines, of those who inhale mercury vapor, of Inuit meals of contaminated fish and melting Arctic ice.